Neo FreeRunner: More Hobby than a Phone

Neo FreeRunner phoneBuy the Neo FreeRunner if you want a hobby, not if you want a phone.

The Neo phones are the world's first "open source" phone. If you want to build your own you can. The schematics and design drawings are available. It runs Openmoko, a free and open source mobile phone stack based on Linux. The FreeRunner is their second generation design and the first intended for general use.

First availability of the Neo FreeRunner phones happened this month. A group of Austin folks got together and did a group buy from the first shipment. The phone is normally $400. We got $50 off and a grab bag of extra goodies (neoprene case and earbuds).

When you turn the device on, it's a sight to behold. A standard Linux boot runs on the 1.7" x 2.27" screen, each character barely larger than a grain of salt. It's not readable, but it will be instantly familiar to anybody who has seen a text mode Linux boot.

It's a GSM phone, so it will work on the AT&T or T-Mobile networks. I got a cheap ($20) pre-paid account from T-Mobile for testing. Unfortunately, the FreeRunner failed to do the initial activation of the SIM card. I borrowed a phone and activated it there. Then I popped the SIM back into the FreeRunner, and it worked fine.

The FreeRunner makes calls and does SMS text messages as advertised. That is, unfortunately, about all it provides for out-of-the-box functionality.

On my last trip to the phone store, I was saddened by how terrible the user interface is on most cell phones. Everything is a GUI, and it's never quite clear what a given button or icon does. The FreeRunner suffers from this too, but it's much worse given its complexity. I still haven't figured out completely how the SMS application works. I think the messages are organized into folders: one icon brings up the list of folders and another opens one up. There are two different icons that appear to have the same action: send a new messages. That's confusing, and it's compounded by the lack of application documentation.

The FreeRunner has a long list of features, none of which really work out of the box. This includes Wi-Fi, bluetooth, accelerometer, and a GPS. I was, for instance, able to bring up Wi-Fi, but only if I sshed into the device, manually set the SSID (Linux Wi-Fi typically uses SSID "any" to lock onto the strongest signal, but that didn't work), and manually started the DHCP daemon.

There is no "preferences" screen. To configure the phone you need to launch a terminal window (not recommended when you have to do alpha input using numeric keypad taps a la SMS messages) or ssh into it and run command line operations (such as gconftool).

Clearly the FreeRunner is nowhere near ready. Nonetheless, the device seems solid and it has remarkable potential. Other than some known issues with GPS, all of the other problems I've encountered are either application or integration issues. Now that the FreeRunner is out and in people's hands, the development pace may pick up, which is what's needed to fix those problems.

I haven't even touched on the "multiple stack" issue—the fact that Openmoko has been forked into alternate versions while still in its infancy. That's an extremely unfortunate turn of events, because it diverts development resources just as the time they are needed most.

So, I'm not quite ready to cancel service on my old Palm phone. But neither am I ready to give up on the FreeRunner. I'll have to take another look in six months. In the meantime, thanks to the open platform, there will be numerous opportunities between now and then to contribute to the project.

In the meantime, we've formed a local Austin Openmoko Users group. Join us if you are interested.

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Funny thing—I just saw a

Funny thing—I just saw a link to a video on vimeo walking through the Open Moko "trainwreck." I do hope this grows into a viable mobile platform. I suppose it's kind of cool that you can telnet into your phone, but it is not cool that you must just to make it work.